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In A Digital Age, Thousands Still Line Up For Books At Phoenix VNSA Book Sale

Published: Friday, February 12, 2016 - 5:57pm
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(Photo by Lauren Gilger - KJZZ)
The 60th VNSA Book Sale will take place this weekend at the Exhibit Building at the Arizona State Fairgrounds.
(Photo by Lauren Gilger - KJZZ)
The Exhibit Hall is full of rows of tables covered in books.

Every February for the last 60 years, thousands of people line up in the early morning hours to be the first to get into the Exhibit Building at the Arizona State Fairgrounds.

They’re not lining up for concert tickets or a free TV or a new iPhone. They’re lining up for books. Yes, the old-fashioned kind — made out of paper and binding.

Saturday marks the 60th VNSA Book Sale, and the building is full to the brim with books.

“We will take any book you want to give,” according to Sandra Stirnweis, “because we have categories for everything. We have humor and business, fine arts, cookbooks, house and garden, audio visual, we have large print and occasionally, a little brail.”

Stirnweis is the Chair of the Children’s Book section of the sale and has been volunteering with the Volunteer National Service Association’s annual book sale for nine years.

Inside the exhibit building — a long, cavernous space normally filled with quilts or cooking demonstrations — there are rows and rows of tables covered in books. And, underneath the tables, there are boxes stacked on top of more boxes full of more books.

There are about 500,000 of them.

The hall has taken about 150 volunteers a week to set up. And they’ll need about 1,000 volunteers to staff the two-day sale this weekend, Stirnweis said.

As far as she knows, this is the largest book sale in the country and, by the end of the weekend, most of these books will be gone.

They don’t keep any of the books, according to Stirnweis. They have a book dealer that they contract with to buy the leftovers, but those only account for between 12 and 20 percent of the books.

VNSA volunteers gather the donated books for the sale all year. They get them from drop boxes around the city, they come pick them up at people’s houses, and book dealers and publishers and libraries give them extra books.

“We will have nine semi-trucks full of boxes of books by the time we’re ready for next year’s sale,” Stirnweis said, walking between the rows of books filling up the massive building.

By Saturday morning, the patrons will start lining up — “and they will literally be lining up,” Stirnweis said. “There will be hundreds of people in line before the doors open at eight o’clock in the morning.”

Each year, the VNSA raises several hundred thousand dollars for the Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation and the Literacy Volunteers of Maricopa County and, even as book stores fold around the country and e-books take off, the book sale still attracts thousands of book lovers every year.

“I think that what we found is that, although we were worried people might not want real books anymore, that that just is not the case. Most people who come read e-books, but they also want the real book,” Stirnweis said. “It’s not the same to curl up in your chair with your Kindle or your Nook or your iPad as it is to literally have the book, the weight of it, the smell of the paper.”

After 60 years, she said, the VNSA book sale has become a ritual for generations of families. 

“I think that there is a weight of tradition,” she said. “People know when the book sale is, they know where it is; they put in on their calendar.”

And, in her children’s section, Stirnweis said she sees as many adults perusing the books as kids.

“And, actually, most adults go in there because they’ll be like, ‘I remember The Radio Boys, I read that, my Dad read that, my Grandpa read that! I want that book!’" said Stirnweis. "And so they buy a memory.”

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